Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Cookbook Metaphor

This summer I plan to teach one or two sections of COMM 101, my university's Introduction to Communication Studies course. The class (sixteen weeks of material condensed into a six-week block) often surprises students with its demands of correctness in writing mechanics and its breadth of conceptual coverage. A number of students, heretofore unaccustomed to thinking theoretically, struggle through this class. Many are genuinely surprised that our field is composed of more than people sitting around and talking.

With that challenge in mind, I plan to introduce the course in a more accessible manner than has been my practice in previous years. Back then, I described the field of communication as a giant map. I figured that students would relate to the notion of reading a map to investigate the terrain of our "field" of communication studies. After all, a map helps us answer important questions: Where are the mountains? Where are the boundaries? Where is the center? Where are the deserts? It seemed like a good introduction to communication studies as a site of inquiry. But after using the map metaphor for years, I've concluded that it doesn't work for me.

Beyond the fact that maps frequently distort the territories they depict, benefiting some people over others, my main concern as a teacher-guide is that maps often convey environments that are foreign and potentially frightening to student-newcomers. And if a newcomer doesn't recognize the place-names on a map, she or he may have no incentive go anywhere.

I've seen this principle in practice. Often when discussing future roadtrips with my daughter Vienna, I'd hand her our trusty Rand McNally and simply say, "where do you want to go?" Until recent years, Vienna was nonplussed at my seemingly open-ended gift of opportunity. No place was any more important than any other place on a strange, new map, so why leave home? Today, Vienna has many places she wants to go, and she already knows a number of maps useful to getting to those places. Many students, however, do not possess this knowledge yet.

So I'll try a different metaphor this time: the cookbook. I'll explain that the field of communication is a cookbook that contains many recipes that allow you to combine common (and uncommon) ingredients into unique creations. Some of these creations are individual speeches or effective interpersonal interactions. Other creations are artful analyses of speeches or interactions produces by others. In both cases, the recipe is designed to help you make something tasty, which our field often defines as being "useful" or "thought-provoking" or "persuasive."

Many ingredients necessary for these creations are unknown to the beginning chef, but most people know something about salt and pepper, beef and chicken. We'll start with those. The trick with recipes, I'll explain, is that they should be followed closely, particularly if you've never previously mixed these ingredients in a certain way. Otherwise, even the nicest cut of beef can be turned into a burnt crisp or a boiled monstrosity. Following a recipe demands attention to detail and process. That's what we call "method."

Following some method -- preheat, add this, mix that, garnish, whatever -- allows just about anyone to transform individually unappetizing ingredients into something delicious (if not always nutritious). Following a recipe demands discipline (the word that many folks would prefer we call our "field of communication"), at least when you're first trying it out. The problem is that learning discipline and working within its constraints takes time and effort.

That's one reason to explain the popularity of "fast food analysis," a term that demands some explication. Let's begin with something common to most of us: our understanding of fast food. A meal at McDonald's is lousy for the body, just as bad communication is lousy for the body politic, right? But many folks settle for it anyway. Without pushing this metaphor too much further, I'd suggest that many popular "recipes" for interpreting artifacts of communication -- let's use a debate between two presidential candidates as an example -- are akin to eating at McDonald's. Rather than taking the ingredients (description of speech environment, collection texts and transcripts, observation of nonverbal behaviors, and the like) and combining them in a systematic way to produce a meal, a useful analysis of why one candidate is more effective than another in this case, many folks settle for the McDonald's-version.

The result is typically unsatisfying, maybe a variant of "change" versus "experience" or some other empty-calorie collection of buzzwords, as justification for the choice of one candidate over another ("She just seemed more... presidential!"). It's warmed over fast food, quick but unhealthy, easy but utterly lacking in artistry or personal satisfaction. As Robert Pirsig explained in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book that offers a thought-provoking introduction to rhetoric for any student of communication studies), it's ultimately a question of quality or lack thereof. Learning to cook up a speech of your own or an appetizing analysis of a speech produced by another person calls for a cookbook that teaches quality both in production and evaluation.

For this perspective, we'll use our textbook like a cookbook. I prefer Em Griffin's Theories of Communication. The recipes are clearly explained, relatively brief, and generally dependable. Some sections will appeal to the meat-eaters (prediction, control, and "influence" models of persuasion, I suppose) while others will speak to the vegetarians in our class (critical theory, feminist analysis, and interpretative methods come quickly to mind). Some folks will even gravitate to recipes that grandma used to make (perhaps a dash of old-school Aristotle). No chef must be familiar with every recipe in the cookbook. But each should have some familiarity with all the major meal-types (you never know when company is coming over for dinner, preferring a particular dish or being allergic to entire food groups). With this approach I'll try to emphasize the practical side of communication studies. After all, we don't read recipes for their own sakes. We use them to produce scrumptious meals for ourselves and for others.

In an update to this post I might reflect on the utility and limitations of this metaphor. In the meantime, I'm feeling hungry right now…

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